People so romanticize “traveling” – they love the thought getting away from where they are and flying to a distant land to see new things. Either they expect the mountains to move them in some profound way that changes their life. Or they believe something even less likely – that they can move the mountains or change the current of a river and alter the sad and unfortunate happenings of the world. Others just want to see it. The world. While the one thing I have learned from ‘traveling’ has been that the world does not so much get smaller the more places you go but actually larger, the point of this is not to criticize people who want to travel. I think traveling more than anything breaks assumptions and stereotypes. I mean to comment on a realization I have had through talking to my friends here and abroad about their experiences that I non-creatively coin the ‘adventure’ discussion.
I once had a friend who went abroad and when he came back told me “everyone asks how Europe was and I give them the answer ‘oh beautiful’ or ‘oh it changed my life – I had so many adventures.’ What do you think would happen,” he asked, “if I told them the truth? That I hated it. That I’ve never been so lonely. And that it was the hardest six months of my life?” It’s not the answer most people want to hear. As I come up on my half way point here in the next couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about my answer after this year to those questions “how was Africa? How was the world?” I’ve been thinking about something my friend Will said before I left: “It’s going to be the worst and best year of your life.” I think there’s truth to that. But it’s not the easiest truth to explain.
It’s because we’ve been told this lie of the ‘adventure.’ That taking an adventure to somewhere new will either solve your problems, or be this rollercoaster ride of awesome jungle voyages after crazy market experiences after river escapades. This last weekend I went to a beautiful area west of here where there are these water falls that consecutively crash into seven pools, each a step above the other. However, what I will remember the most about this day is not the waterfalls, but the girl who we made smile by speaking Yoruba as she helped me climb a tough rock and the man who yelled insults at us for not giving him money, calling us bad things in Yoruba. I will remember that after we were followed home because we were Oyinbos who spoke Yoruba and the man wanted us to ‘pay for speaking his language.’
Then there are days that are just boring. And days that will never end. There are weeks that have flown by me. And moments I wish that I could forget. I’ll remember being yelled at by men and the way my neck cranes every thirty seconds to see if someone’s following me when I walk home alone. I’ll remember my mother’s proverb warnings, “the dark knows no man, my child, the dark does not care who you are.”
Taking an adventure and skipping from one place to the next is one thing, never settling to learn the language or the culture. It can be just as hard to travel along, but it is not the same. Because when it becomes more than just a pretty place, you begin to see the darkness not only where you are but in yourself, your own inabilities and insecurities. And never ever being able to fit in because of the color of your skin, and where you’ve come from, always being Oyinbo – and thus a saint, stupid, rich or a devil in everyone’s eyes. As someone traveling through this may be nothing to you – you cannot hear what they are saying and you can zone out – everything becomes a series of pictures, vignettes, but when you can begin to understand some you hear everything. You develop ears that strain constantly, picking up the environment around you. Everything in a place you live becomes multidimensional and simultaneously annoying and horrible as it is still beautiful and new.
Spending a week here and there, racing after treasure and dragons, you never understanding the suffering seen in the carcasses of machines on the roads of a developing world or know the stinging pain on the back of your hand when a Yoruba mother wacks you for offering her something with your left palm (very taboo here because supposedly you wipe yourself with your left). You begin to realize that maybe it wasn’t just the place you came from that causes you all of your doubts, but living in general. And that living somewhere is like living anywhere, with all of its pain and joy of being able to call that place home.
Having to adjust is painful and it’s not as much an ‘adventure’ as people would like to think. When people ask “so just how was traveling abroad?” if you told them there were moments you had no idea why you were there, or that you learned the joy of having warm dirt and dirty water between your toes and constant sweat on your brow, would they think you were crazy? If you tried to explain accidentally speaking Yoruba to a Hausa person and feeling ashamed, or the loneliness of not understanding a joke in a different language, would they be bored? The great adventure so far has been somewhere between watching Christian cartoons on TV with my little host brother and the feeling of a ripping waterfall blinding your eyes and scaring your back.
The waterfall really was awesome though, if I can steal some more photos from somewhere I’ll put up a few.